On death row in Sudan last week, Meriam Ibrahim gave birth to a girl, whom she named Maya. The 27-year-old prisoner of conscience is now a step closer to the gallows. On May 15, Meriam was sentenced to be hanged for apostasy from Islam, but the execution was ordered delayed until the then-8-month pregnant defendant delivered and weaned the baby.
Notwithstanding its assertion last weekend that Meriam would be released “in a few days,” by Monday Sudan had made it clear it has no such intention. Her defense lawyer is now pursuing legal appeals, but Meriam’s only real hope of being spared lies in the moral pressure created in the court of public opinion.
Meriam’s case turned on the question of her religious identity—whether she is lawfully a Christian, a faith she inherited from her Ethiopian Orthodox mother and embraces, or whether, because her father was a Muslim, she too must be a Muslim, even though he abandoned the family when she was young.
The Sudanese court determined that she was a Muslim under sharia law and, after she refused to renounce Christianity at trial, convicted her of apostasy. It also found her guilty of adultery for marrying a man who is Christian, which is forbidden to Muslim women in Sudan, and, for that, the court ordered that flogging with 100 lashes be added to her punishment.
The cruel treatment and flagrant denial of religious freedom are shocking even by Sudan’s abysmal human rights standards. The case has received wide attention in the international media, and it has stirred high level outrage. British Prime Minister David Cameron, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, and various U.N. rights experts are among those who have raised their voices in protest. Mia Farrow has started a hashtag campaign (#FreeMeriam) and others are circulating petitions.
But from one quarter there has been noticeable silence. For over two weeks since the verdict was announced there has been no public statements in defense of Meriam from President Barack Obama or any high level U.S. government official. The U.S. State Department spokesperson said the agency was “deeply disturbed” by the sentence imposed on Meriam but “understood that the sentence was open to appeal”, thus seeming to suggest that the administration is heartlessly preparing to stand by and passively watch the process play out .
Moreover, there’s another compelling reason for President Obama and Secretary John Kerry to speak up. As the State Department acknowledged on Monday, Meriam’s husband, Daniel Wani, holds American citizenship. This means that the couple’s two infant children, newborn Maya and 20-month-old Martin—both now held in lock-down with their mother at the Federal Prison for Women in Omdurman—would also be American citizens. Meriam, herself, is eligible for citizenship as Daniel’s spouse.
The protection of U.S. citizens overseas should be a top priority for the State Department, but, in this case, the agency appears to be worse than useless: it is demanding that Daniel, who is in Sudan trying to save his wife’s life and rescue his family, first prove his paternity through DNA testing before conferring citizenship on the children.
Referencing the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters, “To transmit U.S. citizenship to a child born abroad, there must be, among other requirements, a biological relationship between the child and a U.S. citizen parent or parents.” And, she commented, “Genetic testing is a useful tool for verifying a biological relationship.” Unfortunately, under the circumstances, it is just not very feasible.
There’s also an option for political asylum for Meriam. The INA grants discretion to the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to admit a refugee due to special humanitarian concern. A journalist at the State Department briefing on June 2 asked about the status of this possibility, pointing out that DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson made public comments last week at a committee hearing in the House of Representatives indicating that he wasn’t all that familiar with Meriam’s case. The answer was not reassuring.
QUESTION: … Has Secretary of State Kerry had any communications with Secretary Johnson about the plight of this wife of a U.S. citizen and these children of a U.S. citizen who have been in prison in Sudan because they’re Christians, yes or no?
MS. PSAKI: Again, we would not have spoken out as strongly as we have about this horrific case if there weren’t concerns from the very top. I’m not going to outline it further.
U.S. consular officials attended the public hearing for Meriam, are meeting with Daniel and are probably doing everything they can to help them. But their activity cannot substitute for presidential condemnation and cabinet level pressure. And time is of the essence. According to some reports, the flogging of the new mother is to take place in less than two weeks. The prison itself is primitive and hazardous to the infants’ health. The longer Meriam languishes in prison, the greater the risk that her case drops from the headlines and international attention shifts elsewhere. And an official U.S. response of cold indifference to Meriam’s fate—and the well being of an American’s young family—will not go unnoticed in Khartoum; already, there are reports of new arrests for apostasy surfacing in Sudan.
The United States government historically has been the world’s leading advocate for religious freedom within the United Nations and in bilateral relations. This is no time for abdication of that role. While we do not know all that is going on behind the scenes, too often we find that quiet diplomacy is actually silent diplomacy. An expression of high level American concern for this case will go far in building and sustaining the international moral pressure for Sudan to back down. President Obama, whose own religious background is so strikingly parallel to Meriam’s, should step up to his bully pulpit on her behalf.